The trials of basic training are a storytelling trope as venerable as military service itself, narrative fodder for filmmakers well back to the earliest days of the movies. The naive cadet and the cruel sergeant are as universal as meet-cute lovers, though an absolute antithesis to that cliché. This is certainly true in Nicolas Roy’s Guerres (Wars), his oblique first feature film that attempts to dissect the extremes of a disturbing recruit-commander relationship.
The director, working from a Cynthia Tremblay screenplay, contemplates in abstracts. The characters exist as little more than ideas, introduced forthrightly but without definition. Ducharme (Éléonore Loiselle) is broadly driven and willing, seemingly ideal as a recruit. She is both capable and subservient, but avoiding something in her search for meaning, and merely claims that she “wants to be useful.” Sergeant Richard (David La Haye) is her commanding officer, ruthless to his enlistees with trite severity but showing an unnerving fixation on the young woman in particular. Their twisted dynamic emerges within an austere encampment, institutionalized to the core, surrounded by a barren gray and snowy landscape as cold as the clinical movements rendered in the film. The relationship between Ducharme and Richard is purposefully vague, however. Its premise hinges almost exclusively through familiarity and with no decipherable intent to reveal much in its ambiguities. When it does progress beyond the acceptable limits of rank and file, it has been rendered with such precision that the shock is devoid of emotion.
In the quiet Ducharme Guerres attempts complexity, though. Loiselle is given space to withdraw in her character, finding reservation just to the point of stifling but avoiding suffocation. The restraint collapses eventually but too often the actress is giving nothing to mold. This is because the mystery of Ducharme is introduced then avoided resolutely – the young serviceperson at the beginning is not terribly removed from the one found in the final frames. That is a shame since she seems constructed for topicality, in particular with exploration of gender expectations and violent hierarchies.
With shorn hair and slight build, Ducharme challenges expectations of both cadet and womanhood. Against the overcompensating and severe Richard – the very definition of toxic masculinity – the interactions aim to be provocative studies but they seldom amount to much more than tense, increasingly horrific transactions. With her obscured traumas, vague hints about her father (an unseen, seemingly deceased military man known to Richard), and willingness to subvert, Ducharme could be a fascinating representation but the filmmaker is reluctant to allow any meaningful room to decipher. The resoluteness of the production scope, too, supports this approach. The apparent recessed fluidity of Ducharme and its disturbing arousal of Richard are weighted without judgement but also without implication.
There is clearly a battle in Guerres and it’s not the brief interval in Eastern Europe depicted in tight shots and shadows. This keeps with the cinematic lineage of military commitment depicted as coming-of-age story – notably severe in this work. The fight is internal, for sure, but the fog of this war remains too thick to demystify Ducharme. While on leave she visits her mother, who reminds her, “you don’t have anything to prove to anyone anymore.” This may or may not be the case but this is a war with prisoners, and clarity is not up for release.